Spare a Thought For the Poor Town Guards

Attending a gaming convention is a lot like being a town guard in a fantasy RPG or mediaeval settlement. You spend a lot of the day on your feet, possibly wearing a cumbersome outfit, and at the end of the day you go back to a cramped room with your comrades.

Let me tell you, spending three days at Anime Central dressed as a Whiterun town guard from the game Skyrim has given me a new appreciation for how careless we Dungeons & Dragons players are when we design characters’ outfits.

1. You can’t see crap out of a face-concealing visor
I opted to do without the Whiterun guard’s iconic face-concealing helmet, since it would limit visibility of the convention stalls and events. Just ask anyone who goes dressed as a Power Ranger.

But the real town guards also need good visibility more than protection. As one says, “I mainly deal with petty thievery and drunken brawls. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good bandit raid.”

The helmet makes sense if you’re marching into battle in immobile formation. When chasing a thief at night, it’s suddenly a real hindrance.

2. Greaves gradually sap stamina
The Whiterun town guards wear only light fur armour on the lower legs. That’s sensible, because according to modern research into plate armour, heavy lower-leg armour costs the wearer a lot in stamina as he moves.

Both guards and convention-goers do a lot of marching. If you’re wearing something heavy on your lower legs, it’s going to cost more energy to swing them.

3. Cloth does not fold that way
The most difficult part of recreating the Whiterun guard’s uniform was the town’s yellow cloth tabard. It looks simple, but it was impossible to make it fold right.

It bunches up and doesn’t sit right. It slides around even with the belts holding it in place, and when you sit down the cloth and belts bunch up. It’s difficult to make sure the front and the back of the tabard are the same length, like tying a necktie.

I consulted the live action Skyrim trailer to see how their costume department handled the tabards on similarly-dressed Stormcloak soldiers. It turns out even their tabards bunch up and don’t sit right. The lesson here is that what works for an artist or game designer doesn’t always go in real life.

4. Shields are heavy
Like the greaves that cover the legs, shields worn on the forearm apply considerable weight and tire the user more as the arm is swung.

I decided to forgo the shield with my outfit, but it would be reasonable for a town guard to sling the shield across his back when not in use. It guards against backstabs and makes the shield easier to carry by spreading the weight across the shoulders like a backpack.

5. Normal citizens don’t walk around in armour all the time
It makes sense for town guards to wear armour, in case the town is attacked or they have to apprehend an armed criminal.

But why does every other male citizen in Whiterun walk around in iron breastplate?

Jon Battle-Born, son of a local warlord, hangs around town in iron armour like it’s normal clothing. Sinmir, a warrior in the tavern, complains about the security in Whiterun as he drinks mead in full breastplate armour and a horned helmet. Even the town blacksmith’s husband tends his shop in a suit of armour, as if he expects to be robbed at any moment.

Anyone who has worn armour will tell you that it’s not exactly casual wear. At the absurd end of the scale is an online game like Runescape where everyone wears full plate armour at the marketplace, or when fishing, or even while sleeping.

Improve your character’s outfit realism
People don’t wear pieces of armour without a reason. Heavy armour is only worn when protection is a necessity, and people only make sacrifices like poor visibility and stamina in situations where those things are less important. They certainly don’t sleep in it.

Dungeon Masters, writers and artists: Spare a thought for your poor town guards when you pick their uniform.

Comments (1)

DM Dave (June 26th, 2012)

Three cheers for town guards!

It’s a tragic lot, indeed, being a town guard. For many a guard, there only purpose in fantasy is to die at the hand of hero or villan when the story suits it. They are, along with “Commoner” the most unappreciated of the NPC’s that live in our fantasy worlds. They might not seem like much at first glance, but let’s give them a second look.

In realistic world, these guys are what keep the law and order. While they may vary as much as modern police in their effectiveness, they are, nonetheless, men taking a thankless job with high risks and, often, low pay.

If you run a world like mine, these guys are people, too. I might not have names for all of them, but there’s a table standing by in the event a PC asks. If your aim is immersion, remind your players that guards had families and friends, too. Make their deaths mentionable, not just “he died, loot?”.

Lastly, give them some credit in the experience department. Not all should be dumb brutes. Town guards should be streetwise in their own home. I can also imagine that they wouldn’t be guards long if they were incompetent in every aspect.

Show the guards some love, DM’s and players, they might not be heroes like PCs, but they’re heroes in their own right.


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